Boeing lead pilot warned about flight-control system tied to 737 Max crashes, then told regulators to delete it from manuals
A Boeing pilot warned about problems with the flight-control program on the 737 Max that was implicated in two fatal crashes, said he “unknowingly” lied to regulators, and told the Federal Aviation Administration not to include the system in pilot manuals before regulators deemed the plane safe for the public in 2017, according to messages released Friday.
The messages deepened the manufacturer’s crisis over the bestselling jets, which have been grounded worldwide since March in the wake of the crashes, sending the stock to an eight-week low.
The Boeing lead pilot complained in one of the messages that a flight-control system, known as MCAS, was difficult to control, according to the messages, which were obtained by NBC News.
That system and pilots’ ability to recover from its failure in flight are at the heart of investigations into the crashes. Investigators have implicated the system in both crashes — a Lion Air 737 Max that went down in Indonesia in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines plane of the same model that crashed in March.
MCAS malfunctioned on both flights, repeatedly pushing the planes’ noses down until their final, fatal dives. All 346 people on both flights were killed.
“Oh shocker alerT! MCAS is now active down to M .2. It’s running rampant in the sim on me,” Mark Forkner, Boeing’s former chief technical pilot for the 737, said in 2016 to a colleague, Patrik Gustavsson, referring to the simulator, according to the transcript. “Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious.”
His colleague replied that they would have to update the description of the system.
“So I basically lied to regulators (unknowingly),” read Forkner’s reply. Gustavsson responded: “It wasn’t a lie, no one told us that was the case.”
Forkner’s attorney, David Gerger, said in a statement, “If you read the whole chat, it is obvious that there was no ‘lie.'”
“The simulator was not reading right and had to be fixed to fly like the real plane,” he said. “Mark’s career — at Air Force, at FAA, and at Boeing — was about safety. He would never put anyone in an unsafe plane.”
‘Jedi mind-tricking regulators’
Forkner in January 2017 instructed an FAA employee to remove MCAS from pilot manuals and training, according to an email between the two that was obtained by NBC News.
“Delete MCAS, recall we decided we weren’t going to cover it in the FCOM or the CBT, since it’s way outside the normal operating envelope,” Forkner wrote.
He said in an earlier email to an FAA official that he was “jedi mind-tricking regulators into accepting training the training that I got accepted by FAA etc.”
The FAA on Friday said Boeing withheld these “concerning” messages for months from regulators.
The agency, which first certified the planes in 2017, said it is “disappointed that Boeing did not bring this document to our attention immediately upon its discovery,” adding it is “reviewing this information to determine what action is appropriate.”
Pilots at airlines, including American, complained after the crashes that they did not know about the MCAS system until after the first crash.
Boeing shares fell sharply Friday after the news broke, shedding nearly 7% and shaving about 170 points off the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The stock ended at $344, the lowest close since Aug. 21.
CEO under fire
The messages add to pressure already piling up on Boeing and CEO Dennis Muilenburg. The company and the FAA are facing several investigations into the plane’s design and software.
The company’s board removed Muilenburg as chairman last week, saying the division of the two roles will help him focus on bringing the plane back to service. Muilenburg is set to testify at two congressional hearings for the first time since the crashes: a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Oct. 29 and a House Transportation Committee panel scheduled for Oct. 30.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, called the instant messages “shocking, but disturbingly consistent with what we’ve seen so far in our ongoing investigation of the 737 MAX, especially with regard to production pressures and a lack of candor with regulators and customers.”
He said the incident “is not about one employee; this is about a failure of a safety culture at Boeing in which undue pressure is placed on employees to meet deadlines and ensure profitability at the expense of safety. Boeing will have to answer for this and other questions at our hearing on October 30th.”
The FAA turned over the instant messages to U.S. lawmakers and the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, the agency said.
“Over the past several months, Boeing has been voluntarily cooperating with the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s investigation into the 737 MAX. As part of that cooperation, today we brought to the Committee’s attention a document containing statements by a former Boeing employee,” Boeing said in a statement.
Boeing has developed a fix for the software that misfired on the crashes but regulators haven’t yet signed off.
Airlines have missed out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue because of the grounding, which forced them to cancel flights and reduce their growth plans. Carriers repeatedly pulled the planes out of ischedules with no end in sight to the grounding. Southwest this week canceled 737 Max flights through Feb. 8, later than any U.S. carrier.
“We want to know more details and we stand with [FAA] administrator [Steve] Dickson in his demand for more information and an explanation on why this information were withheld,” said Dennis Tajer, spokesman for American Airlines pilots’ union.
Pilots at Southwest, the largest Max customer in the U.S., earlier this month sued Boeing for allegedly rushing the plane to market and said the grounding has meant its pilots have lost out on about $100 million in pay.
“The FAA’s announcement echoes the very serious concerns at the center of SWAPA’s lawsuit, and this is more evidence that Boeing misled pilots, government regulators and other aviation experts about the safety of the 737 MAX,” Southwest pilots’ union said in a statement. “It is clear that the company’s negligence and fraud put the flying public at risk.”